Nicole Wong, dubbed “Google’s Gatekeeper” by the New York Times Magazine and “The Decider” by her colleagues, is the person at Google with the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to honor takedown requests for YouTube videos, blog posts, and other content that world governments or private entities deem offensive or illegal. Google and its various properties have been blocked in 24 different countries over the last few years.
Interviewed by prominent legal scholar and journalist Jeffrey Rosen at South By Southwest, Wong sounded brilliant, articulate, and pretty overwhelmed by the demanding responsibilities of her job–15 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute–and its enormous leverage over free expression rights, which can be a matter of life and death in countries around the world. “YouTube has been blocked in Turkey for almost a year,” she said. “I’m at that point where I feel like we’ve played all our legal cards, all of our technology cards–there are only so many tools in the toolbox for a single company.” That’s why Wong took a surprisingly lenient view of the Australian government’s controversial “blacklist” of censored sites. She said she was “temperamentally against filtering,” but the fact that filtering is happening in a country with a government that’s acknowledged as democratic and legitimate allows us to have a public debate about how to “push government to be transparent, accountable, and narrow,” in deciding what speech is so harmful that it deserves to be excluded from public discourse.
Wong, it emerges, doesn’t want to be the sole Decider anymore. She wants to bring governments, civil society groups, and other companies to the table to defend free expression and privacy rights worldwide. She spoke about the Global Network Initiative, an attempt to do just that, and about a hope that the US government, whose First Amendment is the global gold standard for free speech, will incorporate the principle into trade talks.
But talking to some young Googlers afterwards, I got a sense that maybe the best guardians of free speech online are neither states nor companies– but activists, artists, hackers, and other rulebreakers. There’s an arms race between those who build walls and those who break them down or tag them with digital spray paint, and the best technical minds tend to be on the side of freedom, not censorship. James Powderly of Graffiti Research Lab yesterday made the same point in his terrific keynote.